Lotteria is a fast-food chain in Japan (with other outlets in East Asia) serving up its special Ramen Burger for a limited run, just until mid-June. I was lucky enough to be in Tokyo as the promotion started, hitting up a Shinjuku location that offers only 100 burgers per day (some shops sell only 50). I was excited to try this. Ramen and burgers are two of my favorite foods. Combine them, and what could go possibly wrong?
Just about everything.
Actually, the individual components aren't bad. The chashu is moist and tender enough, with a layer of fat and good pork flavor. It's braised in soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and bonito flakes, with a sweet tare sauce added. The ramen "patty," which is boiled and lightly charred, comes from Menya Musashi—a quality ramen chain in Tokyo with its flagship in Shinjuku. Hiding beneath the noodles is Japanese mayonnaise, almost always a welcomed ingredient. The bun itself is simple and soft, exactly what I want for a burger, in contrast to brioche buns, which can both get in the way and fall apart. On the side is a cup of "special soup" with bonito flavoring.
Put it all together, though, and the sandwich is sad. The carb-on-carb action falls flat, bland in comparison to the more readily available yakisoba sandwich with its fried noodles, pickled red ginger, and yakisoba sauce seeping into the soft bun. The chashu is too small, not making its presence felt in enough bites. And I didn't know what to do with the soup. Dip the sandwich, au jus-style? That's too awkward. Dip some excess noodles, tsukemen-style? That pulls too many noodles from the burger. Turns out, I later learned, that the soup is just for drinking. (Unless you do kaidama, ordering extra patties at 100 yen apiece, which you then dip in the soup.)
I think Lotteria's Napoli Panda Burger (with spaghetti and cheese) might be a better bet. It retains the beef patty, with tomato and cheese adding umami that's missing in the Ramen Burger. And it's half the price of the Ramen Burger, which at 634 yen (634 in Japanese is mu-sa-shi, in honor of the noodle source) is pretty expensive for a fast-food product. For that money, I could almost buy a regular bowl of ramen at Menya Musashi, not far from this particular Lotteria. Gomen nasai (I'm sorry).
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.